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Digital Death

{Missing Bits}
Digital Death is the title of the first thesis of this series; ‘Missing Bits’ is an apt addition to this title, as it refers both to computer ‘bits’ which have been lost i.e. ‘missing’ but also to the fact that a person may be emotionally ‘missing’ their lost ‘bits’ (of information or memory.) This title also subtly informs the reader that this book has been written with the purpose of extending my thesis by covering any bits missing from previous work.

Stacey Pitsillides

Introduction, 1 1. The Pet Cemetery, 5 2. The Missing, 9 8. Living Archives, 42 3. The Waiting E-mail, 13 4. Grief Goes Public, 16 5. I am...Record, 24 6. Share Your Emotacons, 30 9. The Ex-Box, 45 10. Museum of the Self, 52 11. Splitting of the Digi-self, 61 12. Sci-Fi and the Way Forward, 68 7. Destruction of a Hard Disk, 37

physical meet R in location 1 exchange details chat, drink, sing digital e-mail Re: 1 e-mail Re: reply 1 Facebook comment on status Scype messanger chat Facebook invite to location 2 accept invetation to location 2

call C and invite to location 2

“When we change the way we communicate, we change society”1

google maps: find location 2 plan travel and times arrive C meets R location 2 is great! C/R dance and pose. excited tweet about going to location 2 take photographs facebook status update put up gallery of pictures on Facebook/ Twitter bump into J and arrange to go to location 2 call E, F, K to join J comments saying we should catch up! E creates facebook invite, group V all coming..

return to location 2 chatting about it next day in uni friends suggest going to the pub for a drink after classes taged in 10 pictures status update promising to never drink again

Figure 1:
One week documented and divided into digital and physical interactions.
1 2

The way we communicate determines everything:
From who we talk to on a regular basis to how we act and document our lives. Even the way we feel is, to a certain extent, constantly being mediated through our communication systems and online- behaviours. I find this particularly interesting when considering the social and cultural implications of Death in the Digital world. Throughout my own life, the ways people communicate and our communication systems have changed vastly. They have even changed throughout the two-year period of my research into Digital Death2 . The way we communicate has a knock on effect to everything it means to be human. Not excluding the way, we both view and experience:

Throughout ‘{Digital Death} Missing Bits’ I will begin to explore this claim1 through the examination of a collection of both personal and shared; Narratives and life experiences. The narratives that feature here, have been specifically selected, as they allow me to uncover and analyse a cross section of digital cultures, adding body and emotional depth to my thesis. This vantage point will allow the reader a unique opportunity to peep into some of the varied public’private’ reactions, practices and rituals surrounding death in our digitally augmented world.

loss, death and bereavement.
3 4

The pet cemetery is one of the first examples of ‘new culture’ I discovered within my initial exploratory research of Second Life3. By immersing myself within a virtual community and taking on a new identity, Luma Ashdene, I was able to experience and document my own reactions to this new system of communication. By chatting, talking and interviewing residents of Second Life I became interested, in both the relationships they had formed and how members of this community dealt with losses, both in the physical and virtual space. I was lucky enough to meet the creator of this particular Second Life ‘Pet Cemetery’, screen name: Silverax Greenwood. My question at the time was ‘why would a person want to visualize death in a virtual space?’ Over the period of my research one of Silverax’s answers has stayed with me:


“But they feel ease, they feel they can have grave”2

And it is this ability, to ‘feel ease’ and ‘allow grief’ that gives the ‘grave’ whether physical or virtual, its appeal. The ‘grave’ allows you to exchange a small piece of the ownership of that which you have lost for something lasting to mark the event, both in your mind and your surroundings. To rest, in time, not only a lost loved one but your own grief. Consequently, this coordinate, in time and space becomes not so much a place to experience loss, as a place to trigger memory. You know of the grave’s existence and therefore, in a small the way the continued existence of that person in this world. You also ‘know’ that if you visit ‘them’ again, you will have to remember, without evidential documentation or imagery. This again leads me to consider web cemeteries, which despite my own personal surprise are not a new concept.

In fact “the earliest Web cemeteries [were] created in 1995”4
Only thirty five years after the creation of the Internet itself.

Figure 2:
The Pet Cemetery: Second Life: Avatar: Luma Ashdene in preying position.


These early cemeteries “provided simple e-mail forms of memorial submission.”4 This highlights that despite the existence of physical graves there is, arguably, still a user-need for its virtual counterpart.

What do virtual graves offer that physical graves don’t?
To begin to understand this question, it must fist be broken down into various parts. It must be taken into consideration, how death itself manifests in the digital world? What new and old, forms of ritual and culture surround it? The new ‘needs’ and cultures of contemporary society, that would make virtual graves and memorials particularly attractive? And the unavoidable circumstances in which physical memorization is impossible and therefore virtual memorization becomes the primary form of bereavement?



In the modern age we all too familiar with e-mails appearing in our in-box. We sort them, log them and reply to them.

However what happens when this system breaks down and an e-mail you were expecting to come does not? How do we deal with this absence in the age of information excess?
How many days before we start to question its lack of presence and construct narratives around the ‘missing bits’? Eventually, the lack of communication becomes a form of communication in itself ‘it says something.’ It begins to tell a story, or a range of alternating stories. These stores are the non-documented, the undocumented and therefore in a rare instance of digitality, a ‘pure’ memory. Strangely enough, we tend to remember more vividly the e-mail we did not get, perhaps because it is annoying or because it hurts to be left waiting.

Whereas the e-mail we do receive, we simply refer to, because of e-mail’s quality of self-documentation, we need not remember it. However the ‘missing’ e-mail could be the most important piece of our life-jigsaw and yet as perceived by photographer David Farrell “how [can] you photograph [or document] ‘the intangible presence of absence’?”5 Which leads me also to question whether it is indeed necessary to have such a complete documentation or evidence of every life event? Does having such independent communication systems leave us vulnerable? and when communication inevitably breaks down how do we cope with this loss? We live in an age where “we have virtual acquaintances, virtual colleagues and even virtual friends. If they die, how are we to be informed? Do we have a right to be informed?”2 There is currently very little infostructure in existence to deal with, when and how, to inform virtual loved ones of death. Second Life’s ‘Linden Lab’ states that “if there is a legally binding will and testament they will divide assets and inform loved ones in-world of your passing.”3 However in order to do this Linden Lab requires: a testamentary letter or other appropriate order, a copy

of the death certificate, a copy of the will and a copy of a governmentissue ID sufficient to identify you. This tedious process would perhaps prevent many people from attempting to inform virtual friends. However one must ask, if this process were to be implemented, how far is Linden Lab responsible for the way these virtual friends receive this ‘bad news’ and the aftermath of their bereavement. An interviewee, Francesco d’orazio, brings relevance to the involvement of Linden Labs in the informing and bereavement of their community as he relates a close experience of death in Second Life. Francesco had a friend in Second Life, a friend he had known for around two to three years. One day ‘she walks up to him’ and tells him that she has “a hole in her brain” and then shortly afterwards, disappears. Francesco confided that at the time, he felt he had no option but to try not to think about it, for him there could be no resolution, only assumptions. Francesco considered his friend to be ‘missing,’ this ‘missing’ could be explained, on the one hand by death. However being ‘missing’ from Second Life, could also simply mean that she decided to do something else and communication broke down.

He related that despite this indefinancey, he would have liked some way to honour her because at least to him, she was lost.6
Farrell refers to this ‘loss’ of the missing, in Ireland, as the “poignant and… haunting ‘diaspora of the disappeared’”5. I believe there are strong parallels in the uncertainty of grief when regarding both the physical and virtual ‘missing.’ So I begin to consider, How do I as a designer or critical thinker begin to ask these poignant questions to the networks and communication systems about their responsibility for both the friendships and losses they facilitate?


Sometimes the e-mail is there, waiting for you.


-------- Original Message -------From: {…} > On Behalf Of {…} Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 12:44 PM This is the e-mail you do not want to receive. It contains the news we dread to hear, the moment we see it’s well-phrased caption meshed into our crowded in-box, we panic: “A very sad news.” Our brain begins to go over all the possibilities of what and who it can be but at least we have been warned, the first barrier has been broken. It then goes on, ‘Dear Friends,’ this term implies that the group that have received this e-mail are a collective, a community even and that they can rely on each other for support. It also suggests that anyone receiving this e-mail has the right to receive this very personal information. The fact that it is sent in the form of a ‘chain mail’ further links the group and results in the linking of the ‘original news’ to all responses.

To: TCCC List Subject: [Tccc] A very sad news Dear Friends, Unfortunately I have to break you with the saddest of news. Last Wednesday {…}, esteemed scientist and beloved to many of us {…} passed away. He was diagnosed cancer two years ago, but nobody was expecting the situation to degenerate so fast. Those closer to him saw his courage and bravery in pursuing research, and life, in spite of the situation. He was a Fellow of IEEE nominated by ComSoc. He leaves the wife {…}, two adult sons, {…}, and two teenage girls, {…}. The funeral will be in his home Kibbutz of {…}, Israel, {...}. Sadly {…}

{…} On Sat, Dec 12, 2009 at 5:20 AM, {…} wrote: This is truly very sad. {…} was an outstanding young engineer and scientist and an enthusiastic supporter of Comsoc activities. He was also a caring friend. He will be sorely missed. Professor {…}

Figure 3:
An example of an e-mail sent out informing collaborators and colleagues of the death of a prominent professor.
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DIGITAL LIFE - considering sharing in communities

generalize (+) experience




(+) people sharing an experience (in a community)

Figure 4:
A diagram depicting the varying scales of group forming.

“Loss is a personal affair … it is based on the particular persons perception of an event. It can be actual, fantasized or anticipated, conscious or unconscious. It includes biological, social and psychological factors.”7 Loss is something we all encounter and have experience of throughout our lives, and although the degree and way in which we experience loss differ, it is an experience we are familiar with. Because of the bi-polarity of loss, it can simultaneously act, as both an alienating and collaborative force within society. The death of Princess Diana is one of my first memories of someone very famous dying. If i’m honest I will admit to remembering more about The Princess’s death, then her life itself. Many people refer to Diana’s death as being:

private emotion, experienced only within a close network of friends and family who knew the person. Diana was a public figure, ‘the people’s princess,’ this made people feel like they could share in this loss and publicly express the grief they felt. Through this shared emotion, a bond was created within the British public, for a couple of days millions of people shared an experience and felt like they had a right ‘to grieve’. “Many people across the country brought [flowers] and placed them along with very personal messages written on attached cards ... A single flower with a message ... read ‘Beautiful Lady, Rest in Peace, With Love, Sam (A homeless friend.)’ “8 Through this example we see the vast and varied collection of people who felt genuine loss and engaged in communal grief. Public grief can also be considered as a

A day that will remain in the ‘memory of the British public forever.’
In England grief is generally a

“way of rebuilding community”6
through grief we feel a connection to each other and associate with each other in an emotional way.

Figure 5:
The reaction of the British public to the death of Princess Diana.

Figure 6:
An ongoing experimental ‘Diana Avatar’ in Second Life, meant as a provocation to discover what would people’s reaction would be to the appearance of the dead princess?


Public grief has taken place for as long as we have had community, to look at the shift in ritual practice in the modern age I will consider the recent death of pop star: Michael Jackson (1958-2009). Michael Jackson is another well-known example of public grief but unlike Diana, flowers were not the main feature of his memoriam. The death Michael Jackson marked a landmark in digital culture because so much of the public grieving, remembrance and memorialization took place in a digital environment. The online space has allowed for “ridiculously easy group-forming.”1 This is important because it highlights people’s desire to be “part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert”1 the online space has allowed people to unite in their grief and form strong, if transient bonds, with others around them. The Internet has also become the informant. Whereas with Diana the TV was the main source of information, in the case of Michael Jackson, many people discovered the news of his death through online sources, as these sources were faster then conventional methods of press and have the ability to easily “announce [and disseminate the news of] deaths to a potentially

global audience.”9 Then once the news is initially announced, it is filtered down through the various social networks and announced to the world via individuals acting on personal impulse (many to many) through ‘status updates’ and ‘tweets’ Even in somewhere as niche as my own network of Facebook friends around 70 percent of friends commented on Michael Jackson’s passing, many lamenting this loss in some way, either by donating their status as a tribute e.g. “RIP King of Pop” or perhaps by tagging their favourite song on You Tube. The Internet allowed for an almost viral spread of tribute and the immortalization of Michael Jackson, who will not only remain in the memory of the public but in their processors and networks. The presence of the internet in this memorialization, meant that anyone could quickly and cheaply announce to the world, that they too, were sad that he is gone. And therefore through this example it becomes obvious that collaborative grieving is no longer focused within a specific community or even a specific nation, now people from all over the world have the opportunity to group together and feel that moment of connection (togetherness.)

Thus we see that “while [social network’s] key technological features are fairly constant, the cultures that emerge around SNS’s are”10 constantly varying.
A more niche example of this concerns Facebook’s occasional role as a method of informing friends of personal loss. This experience of personal loss was shared, when friends were informed through a facebook status update that a couple who were expecting a baby had “lost the bub this week end.” Within this status it was also mentioned that [she] thought this was the easiest way of informing everybody of her loss. Friends within the community reacted with sympathy, resulting in the sharing of stories of their own personal losses and offering support and prayers. She was also able to inform the community on days when she didn’t “feel like talking” through her status.





what should i do???



Lately I have been thinking a lot about digital sharing, what does it mean to ‘share’ a piece of yourself with a collective and for there to be a perfect record of each of these ‘sharings’. How has this record changed the way people interact, argue, get even and even proclaim love? By leaving behind our ‘flawed’ and very ‘human’ memory, I have begun to wonder if in the quest for immortality (of information) are we are eroding our power to forget? Forgetting is something which has, throughout time, protected us both from an overload of information and our own past. Before digital memory, if you had an argument with a friend; they would have their side, you would have your side. Eventually the fight would be forgotten. There was no proof as to who was right and who was wrong. However if you have an argument with a friend on Skype, your words have a real chance of ‘coming back’ to haunt you. Your friend can now come back to you three weeks, three months or even three years later with your exact words. They can even have shown these words to various third parties and have received comments and opinions. The most recent public example of

d ba



es ori

good m




this being an e-mail, examined and displayed within Sophie Calle’s exhibition, “Talking to Strangers”11 The appearance of this document, this non-temporal bit of evidence, means that we can no longer be spontaneous or flippant with our wording, as each word uttered within the digital realm has consequences, not just for today but (potentially) forever. “Forgetting plays a central role in human decision-making. It lets us act in time, cognizant of but not shackled by, past events. Through perfect memory we may lose a fundamental human capacity - to live and act firmly in the present”12 As we inevitably live more of lives digitally and have access (digitally) to a perfect memory of both our own and other people personal histories. Time (and our lives) move on, so there will undoubtedly be an accumulation of digital paraphernalia that we may
information hardly ever accessed most regularly accessed information

option to delete.

Figure 7: wish to forget.
Perhaps as a designer I should begin to think about how I could program temporarily, or even decay, into digital information.

Is a map of our information usage, this map could appear in the form of a widget. It is an easy way of allowing users to look and consider their information in entirety, rather then engaging with each ‘bit’ when necessary.

If data not accessed for (user allocated period)data begins to erase itself

warning: digital information about to erase

Digital Long Term Memory (storage)
Data accessed

= =

Hard Disk


Digital Short Term Memory

If data not accessed for (user allocated period)data moves to hard disk

Figure 8:


Is an initial thought model which would allow information, which was not being regularly, used to be stored in a repository (hard disk). Information within this repository would begin to decay if not used for long periods of time. This would force the user to engage with the information they wanted to keep and not store things simply for fear of losing it.



Lately I have begun to ask the question what does this :-( symbol actually mean? Does a typographic ‘sad face’ give you, as the person reading my text, any indication as to how I’m feeling? When you see this standard symbol, do you imagine my face or consider it deeply? Is it possible to empathize with a smiley, does seeing it make you concerned about a friend? Is it enough to make you want to call them and find out why they are sad? Can a smiley or in this case perhaps a ‘frowny’ convey different messages simply by using different type‘face’s? The definition of an emoticon ”is a textual expression representing the face of a writer’s mood or facial expression...They are often used to alert a responder to the tenor or temper of a statement, and can change and improve interpretation of plain text.”13 The question is though, are these symbols actually improving the quality of plain text or are they simply creating further levels of generalization? Emoticons do not provide intonation, they do not create hierarchy. The text we read is still only text and we the reader, still have no way of knowing ‘how’ it must be read and whether we are misinterpreting it’s content.

:-( :-( :-( :-(:-( :-( :-( :-­( :-( :-( :-( :-( :-(:-( :-( :-­( :-(

Evidently emoticons are useful in everyday conversation, when I am neither feeling exceptionally ‘happy’ or ‘sad.’ However I would question whether in the delivery of something as emotionally sensitive as the news of a death, whether something as simple as ;-( could convey anything of value? So therefore when we compare it to “meaning in real-world chat messages [which depend] not only on the words we use but also on how we express meaning through nonverbal cues. Online chat is simple, direct, and unrestrained. While it contains many of the elements of face-to-face conversation, it differs from ordinary chat in that it is a

“19-­‐Sep-­‐82  11:44    Scott  E    Fahlman    :-­‐) From:  Scott  E    Fahlman  <Fahlman  at  Cmu-­‐20c> I  propose  that  the  following  character  sequence  for  joke   markers:                 :-­‐)                 Read  it  sideways.    Actually,  it  is  probably  more  econom-­‐ ical  to  mark things  that  are  NOT  jokes,  given  current  trends.    For   this,  use                 :-­‐(        “15    

textual representation of conversation.”14

Figure 9:
An interesting narrative which sheds some light on the origins of internet emoticons and the reason behind their invention.



do you feel love or a kiss?


How can a symbol on a page become a gesture of love giving? Does having a generic ‘kiss symbol,’ such as this, actually prevent people from talking about emotions which they find difficult? Why should one spend time describing how they feel when a couple of well placed x’s on the end an e-mail or a text message does it for you? Does this ‘x’ make it easier to avoid saying what you actually feel?




For a digital secret to exist one must consider where best it would have the ability to remain undiscovered. The digital world in its ever-increasing quest to provide people with the power ‘to share’ has become difficult to confide in. Our most intimate moments and secrets would perhaps be better served if they resided in the physical, and destructible and yet the digital world does undoubtedly hold secrets.

can you keep a digital secret????

How are we to keep ‘these’ parts of our digital lives away from the world?
A conversation with a Funeral Director led me to think about this question in more detail. The conversation revolved around the story of a man who came to her knowing he was going to die. The man was there to make arrangements for his funeral and one of the things he was most concerned about during their meeting, was the destruction of his computer (hard disk.) He revealed to her, that there was information hidden on his hard disk that could potentially hurt his family and friends and therefore it was important to him that it too was ‘laid to rest’.



This led me to consider, are there certain parts of a hard disk that one would want to ‘die’ with them and if, contrasting the example, one was unaware of their impending death who would be entrusted to take on the burden of this ‘killing’? If a friend or family member were to ask you to end the life of their information, how would we go about it? What would be the most appropriate ritual for the destruction of this information and would there be an emotional repercussion to being responsible for the ‘destruction,’ of someone’s personal information? Perhaps you would even be tempted to look through it before destroyed it was destroyed..? There is also the life span and mortality of a person’s personal computer to consider, I wanted to engage with the fact that within the digital world we find it difficult, if not impossible, to get rid of (or lose) information. We are all, to a certain extent digital hoarders. In the digital world we have, both the ability and the ease to be hoarders. In the physical world space becomes both expensive and uncomfortable, if we never throw out a possession, so one has to select items carefully and only keep what is really important.

“Like late Heidegger, recent Borgmann sees that the direction technology is taking will eventually get rid altogether of objects”16
However in opposition to this, in the digital world, we are always finding new ways of ‘saving’ and ‘retrieving’ information. We no longer spend time considering why we need this information, our time is instead spent sorting, cataloguing and retrieving. This is “the difference between the modern library culture and the new information-retrieval culture…

More has changed then the move from control of objects to the flexibility of storage and access.”16

We are currently living, we go about our lives, we have experiences, feel feelings, observe and make metal comments on the world around us, generally us ‘living’ our lives goes unrecorded and is often un-recordable. Therefore it could be suggested that we, as individuals, are in fact the most complete archive of ourselves. The easiest way for you to find out information about me is to ask.

As Derrada accurately observes in this statement, “It goes without saying, if one could put it that way, that Freud’s phantom does not respond. That is at least how things appear. But can this be trusted? In promising secrecy for a virtual response which keeps us waiting, which will always keep us waiting, the signatory of this monologue lets it be understood that Freud would never say in public, for example in a book and in what is destined to become a public archive, what he thinks in truth secretly”17 How does experiencing something live, differ to experiencing it through a document, archive or digital mediation? Does attending a live event affect the way we remember the occasion? As embodied beings, we have senses at hand and these senses are constantly bringing back information which is stored away as part of the ‘whole’ picture becoming a memory. This ‘embodied memory’ is then easier to recall at a later date, then say an e-mail which is a solidly text based form of communication. Even a photo, which is said to ‘capture’ a person often falls short

of our expectations. This can be observed when Barthes emotionally recalls sorting through old photos of his mother. His frustration with this incomplete form of memory is evident when he states:

“I never recognized her except in fragments… I would have recognized her among a thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her”18
The live memory is easier to trigger as there are many things within our every day environment which have the ability to ‘bring the memory back.’ Therefore when considering death and more importantly, in this instance, the virtualization of death rituals. A physical or embodied ‘event’ to mark a loved ones death, would obviously (where possible) provide a greater finality and give the person a fuller chance of accepting the death and moving on.

Figure 10:
Placing the disk into a safe, out of sight, out of mind. The image above shows a snapshot of a person’s life. This person is a friend of mine. This friend, like most people, has been through a break-up. The couple in question no longer see or talk to each other.

They are both trying to move on but the digital world persists. Hidden among the countless documents, movies, music and other digital data are memory triggers. A problem had presented itself: “Whenever I look on my computer I can’t help but stumble upon pictures of my ex, I don’t want to get rid of them but I just can’t look at them anymore.” Which, for this very particular case immediately led to a simple solution. I told her to delete all the images of her ex from her computer and put them instead on a disk and put the disk somewhere safe and out of sight. Through this simple example I have begun to see the impact of having a chaotic but perfect digital memory. It has made me see the data within my computer as complex ‘bits’ of information which inevitably link me to the memories, events and documents of my life. This is a simple example, as it is something that most people can relate to (losing a relationship). However the example becomes much more complex when one considers how to deal with the information of someone who has died.

When losing a loved one you may not want to

‘put them away in a box.’
I have begun to think about potential, physical and digital, resting places which would allow you the space to grieve but also the opportunity to (in time) celebrate a loved ones information (memories). My own thoughts on the matter, were further iterated through a statement I received from a palliative care nurse regarding a message left on Facebook in memoriam, following the sudden death of a close relative.

“I like knowing that what I wrote is stored somewhere and would feel sad if it were deleted - It would be like deleting her memory.”19

This very personal account which I received, in turn triggered my own memory, reminding me of a short passage from Roland Barthes Camera Lucida: “In this glum desert, suddenly a specific photograph reaches me; it animates me, and I animate it… The photograph is in no way animated (I do not believe in “lifelike” photographs), but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.”18 In this short extract Barthes has identified some of what makes this type of memento: photographs, old possessions and even writing, so valuable to us. As stated previously these possessions are not valuable because we hope to ‘find’ our loved one there. The value of such possessions is intrinsic, deeper and imbedded within ourselves; for it is not the object or even the person we seek to find. What we seek, sometimes without even realizing it, is the myriad of lost and buried memories within the swirl of our own head.

We are thus “animated” by such memories and “animate” the memento.

This has led me, as a designer to consider Heirlooms as a rich and emotionally embedded starting point. Heirlooms could become a sentimental site for the storage digital memories and events, an ‘object’ people could either carry with them or visit when they wanted to remember.


Figure 11

Figure 12


. . .. .. . .



Figure 13:
What are digital remains and where are they to be ‘housed’?

What happens when most of human memory is stored digitally?
Human beings have always dreamed of a day when it would be possible to access information and memory at the click of a button. In 1945 Vannevar Bush imagined an “encyclopedia Britannica [which] could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A Library of a million volumes [which] could be compressed into one end of a desk… [and that] the material for a microfilm Britannica would cost a nikel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent”20 52 years later in November 1993 Michael Gruber questioned:

is constantly in danger of becoming unreadable. In the fast paced world of digital data, new methods of storing and recording, are constantly being discovered and put into practice. Therefore to keep our knowledge banks updated and to avoid losing any valuable data, there must be an equal rise in technologies for digital restoration and upkeep. In 1999 (58 years later) Microsoft research lab started ‘MyLifeBits,’ a project set about to animate Bush’s dream of a “Memex,”20 a device capable of creating of complete record of a human life. “Gordon Bell has captured a lifetime’s worth of articles, books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, home movies, videotaped lectures, and voice recordings... He is now paperless, and is beginning to capture phone calls, IM transcripts, television, and radio.“22 In the year 2000 J.K Rowling published “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” which features, one of the characters, storing his own memories in an external pool (a pensive.) I mention this fictional example because I think there is an interesting parallel to be made.

“What if all your books had only a twenty-year life span before you had to make copies of them?”21
Gruber is referring of course to the great problem of digital information storage, the fact that digital data

The ‘invention’ of this magical device shows how human the allure of ‘perfect memory’ that can be re-visited at any chosen time is. I find it interesting that what we imagine to be fantasy and magic is in fact not only possible but quite normal in the modern age. One can now store their memories in an external pool (computer) and even invite other people to share in some of their experiences. These ‘bits’ of memory, stored in their ‘pools,’ are shielded from the danger of natural decay in the physical world (and the human condition of forgetting.) However throughout this meander through the past, I cannot help but question.

Figure 14:
A scene from “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Professor Dumbledore removing one of his memories.

‘What is to be done with this mass of information once we have spent our lives accumulating it?’
How do we begin to edit down a lifetime’s worth of information, making it relevant, both to our loved ones and society? I also question whether this frantic gathering and saving of information is a reflection on our culture’s in-ability to deal



with loss and mortality? Is ‘digital memory,’ simply a modern search for the fabled philosopher’s stone (immortality) and if our information does get passed down as ‘digital remains’ then have we in some way achieved this goal? Nowadays we tend to keep information simply for the sake of keeping it (because we can) or because we are afraid of losing something we might need? I question whether this really is a good enough reason for it’s existence? This is further enhanced by the “base capabilities of tools like Flickr [which] reverse the old order of group activity, transforming “gather then share” into “share then gather”.”1 Therefore, when thinking about ‘Digital Death’ (and the potential deletion of digital data)

virtual world, rubbish and buried bodies are an archaeologist’s bread and butter, so therefore, is disregarded digital information in the digital world.

This information has the potential to provide a detailed account of our present digital society and culture: ‘Digital Heritage’
To consider Digital Heritage, we must first consider the amount and type of data typically being inputted into social networks; including photos, popular music, films etc. I question, where information relating to ones digital life should, or could exist, including after death? (In other words what its context should be?) Should it be placed in a digital museum, at a funeral or in a historical archive? I plan to develop methods which consider how one would begin to manage this mass of data once it has been recorded and who would be responsible for the collecting, archiving, updating, and curating, of

one must consider the relevance of ‘shared’ data to our historical and sociological futures.
Regarding archiving, in the non57

this ‘database’ of people’s social networks. However, if it were to be completed, this resource would allow historians, anthropologists and even family members to literally look back in time and examine a specific moment of history, pristine and in perfect clarity. One suggestion by WELL info-maven Hank Roberts was the creation of a ‘museum of information’. Roberts argues the relevance of this information being placed into a museum because museum “collections are spotty and odd sometimes, because whenever people went to look for anything, they brought back ‘everything else interesting.’ And that’s the only way to do it, because it always costs too much to get info on demand - a library makes everything available and throws out old stuff; a museum has lots of stuff tucked away as a gift to the future.”21 Already it is possible to “Google or look up in Wikipedia hundreds of thousands of the dead”9 however what results from this unorganized cluster of narratives of a persons life? What do you learn about a person by simply Googling them?

Figure 15
59 60

Do family and friends know the full extent of our digital selves?


How do digital artefacts engage and enrich a person’s digital identity? An experiment was undertaken in which four elements of a person’s digital self (a random selection of Facebook photos, avatar screen shots, a screenshot of their inbox and a screenshot of their desktop) were separated and given to four separate groups (of around ten individuals) to analyse and discover any information they could about who “this person was...” The results yielded some interesting observations. Those with the Facebook photos ‘discovered’ qualitative information and reported this person to be a young, female, art or design, full time student.
This person is

This person is

Their proof was that be young and trendy, parties and appeared East London, wearing

she appeared to attended a lot of in hot spots in Tatty Divine.

Another group were presented with screen shots of an avatar. They ‘discovered’ that this person was a teenage boy, possibly around 14, as the female avatar depicted what they termed to be ‘an idealized version of a woman.’

Figure 16

The group whose job it was to analyse the person’s inbox ‘discovered’ that this person was middle aged man. Their reasoning for believing this was ‘his’ multiple e-mails from companies regarding business opportunities and time saving strategies. The last group were given a screenshot of the person’s desktop; this led them to ‘discover’ that this person was a young female designer, they reasoned this because she had a feminine vintage print as her desktop wallpaper and the mac desktop contained various design programs. They also discovered through many icons, her interest in craft and tattoos and reasoned that she is thinking of starting a business, as icons containing business plans and strategies littered the desktop. The groups were all surprised when it was relieved that each of these sources were each an element of the same person’s digital persona. The results of this experiment makes one wonder how much we actually know about a person if all we have to go on is one source/part of their digital identity? It also proves that if we are to begin using digital data as ‘digital historical artefacts’ we must consider how reliable each source is.

This person is

This person is

Figure 17

And how many sources we must evaluate in order to get valid results. Furthermore this study questions whether the digital self should be split or if must be kept whole to give useful qualitative data? Moreover, does the de-contextualization of digital data provide a flawed or false identity? “Communication media and the historical development of inequality and power have expanded the role of the dead from the family to wider communities, states, and even the entire world…whereas the oral, and especially in hunter gatherer, societies, the role of the dead in society is predictable, i.e. limited within the family to ancestors of a particular gender, today the role of the dead is much more variable, and subject to change”9 As seen above it is evident that throughout the ages both narratives and objects have played a role in keeping the memory of ancestors and important people alive. In the digital age we can all join in this form of immortality. Our information, image and writings have an equal potential of remaining online and being ‘rediscovered.’ “Through digital memory… [we are surveyed] not just in every corner but also across time.”12




2008 2006 2004 2001 2003



Figure 18

So far “{Digital Death} Missing Bits,” has examined, commented on and compared with notions of popular theorists, a collection of thoughts, personal narratives and life experiences. The aim of which; to further my analytical and emotional understanding of emerging cultures and practices surrounding Death within the Digital World.


This analysis, of both anecdotal and experiential ‘life events,’ is ultimately relevant both to myself (as curious observer and theorist) and to my practise, in which I ultimately seek both to highlight particular nuances of digital culture and through design, suggest new concepts, structures and systems. I would like to take the opportunity to contrast two examples from popculture; science fiction films. I believe these examples will enrich my notion of digital death and allow me to use my collection of real life events to consider how one may begin to design for the future. The two films I have chosen to cross evaluate were both released in 2004 and run along parallel themes, both broadly considering peoples relationship to memory.

{1}The Final Cut23

{2}Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind24

The Final Cut is a film which considers what the world would be like if we had the option to implant a ‘Zoe chip’ in our baby’s head. This chip would then record every second of life through the person’s own eyes. Upon the person’s death this chip would then be removed, edited by a ‘cutter,’ in accordance to the wishes of the family and used within a ‘rememory’. The characters within this film, consider this a way of preserving important memories. In one of the scenes the cutter asks the bereaved family “do you recall any moments with your daughter?...I need you, your family to choose those moments you want to keep.”23 However some of the characters are seen, throughout the film, to rebel against these sentiments.


need for memories not to be tainted. By looking at this audio-visual life document do we run the risk of ‘losing’ our own memory of past events and recalling only the document? In another scene one the cutters innocently reveals a fatal flaw in the system of ‘rememory,’ she states “we have to make story decisions, otherwise there will be no rememory.”23 This led me to consider all forms of archive and on-line memory and question who can make these ‘story’ decisions, who is qualified to make that choice? And how does the sewing together of memories (or information) change or give false images of who this person actually was? There are also many cases where people within the film use the system of ‘Rememory’ to literally edit their lives. One character claims, “my husband was a great man...he deserves to be remembered as a great man... I’ve seen rememories where the cutters were careless; they had no respect for the dead.”23 This brings home the idea that having a ‘rememory’ is not for the person who is dead, it is instead a chance to give the living, the ability to construct the narrative of their loved ones life, the life they would have

“I couldn’t take it, I just couldn’t stay, because it wasn’t, it wasn’t him and I wanted to remember him my way.”23
This statement reiterates the human

liked to have and to erase all the bad memories with powerful images and cinematography, that will remain lodged in their brain and eventually inhabit the place of old ‘real’ memories, creating a person who in death has become exactly who they wanted them to be. Both publicly and personally.

service. Clem, one of the main characters “decided to erase [her X] almost as a lark.”24 Throughout the film, as you live out ‘Joel’s’ soon to be erased memories, you are constantly being led to question whether it is better to forget an episode of your life because it is painful or to consider that perhaps, the most painful memories of our lives are also probably the most valued and valuable? Characters who believe in ‘Lucuna’ defend it, saying, “to let people begin again, it’s beautiful.”24 However as the film progresses it becomes clear that all characters become caught up in either questioning the ethics of this company or abusing their position of power. The main character in particular realizes that losing the memory of his X-love is akin to losing her all over again, forever and during her erasure is forced to relive the beauty of their relationship together, through this exquisite agony, he exclaims “please let me keep this memory, just this one!”24 By the time Alexander Pope is quoted, near the end of the film, by an employee of Lucuna, who is intoxicated

“These implants destroy personal history, therefore all history”23
If every person’s personal history is to be selected, curated and edited. When we look back a hundred years from now, what will we see? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film centred around a fictional company, ‘Lucuna cooperation’s’ which has “perfected a safe, effective technique for the focused erasure of troubling memories.”25 In their press release they state “Why remember a destructive love affair?...[when] in a matter of hours our patented, non-surgical procedure will rid you of painful memories and allow you a new and lasting piece of mind.”25 The film centres around a couple who have broken up and end up using ‘this’


and flirting with a married man:

“How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d,”24
This quote begins to sound almost tongue in cheek and the title “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”24 transforms into an ironic ‘wish.’ Which as with most wishes leads not to ‘eternal peace’ but to receiving ‘exactly what you asked for’ which is in this case;

and ‘wishing’ is why I choose to root my research within personal experience and user narrative. As an individual I am inescapably a “part … and … product of [my own] environment … affected by … culture.”26 “Since one cannot have direct control over ones social environment, one becomes a part of that environment and learns behaviours from the culture of the social environment.”26 Therefore I must conclude that if I do not use the experience I have gained by ‘living,’ what hope do I have of designing anything other then a ‘wish’? However as a designer one must also go beyond personal and user experience. One must refer to imagination and think not just of today and what is happening to us now but to extrapolate and envision how scenarios, products and cultures will evolve. “There is a whole side to the technical tendency involving the construction of the universe itself… next to the biological convergence, there is a technical convergence.”27 I hope to use what I have learnt within my research to direct my own “technical convergence” and create designs that both influence and use the “convergence” of contemporary society.

ignorance, emptiness and absence.
This is my worry when considering ‘how’ to design for the digital landscape, which has become so easy to use and manipulate. I wonder when we, as a race, will stop ‘wishing’ for things. This concept of ‘easy change’

[1] Shirkey. C (2008) Here Comes Everybody, Penguin Books Ltd. [2] S. Pitsillides, S. Katsikides, M. Conreen (2009) Digital Death, IFIP WG9.5 “Virtuality and Society” International Workshop on Images of Virtuality: Conceptualizations and Applications in Everyday Life, Athens, Greece. [3] [4] Roberts, P (2006) From My Space to Our Space: The Functions of Web Memorials in Berievement, The Forum: Association for Death Education and Counseling, Volume 32, Issue 4 [5] Farrell, D (2001) Innocent Landscapes, originally exhibited in Actes Sud [6] Notes from conversation with Francesco d’orazio (14th Oct 2009, 6pm) Founder of Myrl, [7] Hadjikos, P. Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist (2009) A Short Guide to Effectively Dealing with Complicated Grief and Bereavement.

[8] Walter, T (1999) The Mourning for Diana, Berg. [9] Walter, T (Sept 2008) The Presence of the Dead in Society, Death &Dying in 18-21c Europe, Romania. [10] Boyd, D. M. Elliso, N. B. (2007) Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. [11] Whitechapel Gallery (October 2009-January 2010) www. exhibitions/sophie-calle-talkingto-strangers. Sophie Calle: Talking to Strangers. [12] Mayer-Schonberger, V (2009) Delete - The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press. [13] From Wikipedia, (updated 11 January 2010 at 19:43) http:// [14] Gajadhar, J. Green, J (2005) The Importance of Nonverbal Elements in Online Chat. www. EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/ EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/ TheImportanceofNonverbalElemen/ 157368

[15] Fahlman, S (1982) Original Bboard Thread in which :-) was proposed. htm [16] Dreyfus. H, Spinosa. C (1997) Highway Bridges and Feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on How to Affirm Technology, After Postmodernism Conference. [17] Derrida, J (1996) Archive Fever, The University of Chicago Press. [18] Barthes, R (1981) Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang [19] Statement from Palliative Care Nurse (Friday, April 17, 2009) [20] Bush, V (July 1945) As We May Think. The Atlantic Online. Http:// print/194507/bush [21] Gruber, M (Nov 1993) Wired: Issue 1.05. Digital Archaeology archive/1.05/1.5_archaeology.html [22] Microsoft Cooperation (2010) MyLifeBits. http://research. mylifebits/

[23] Niam, O (2004) The Final Cut, Lions Gate Entertainment (Audio Visual) [24] Kaufman, C (2004) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Focus Features (audio visual) [25] Lacuna Inc © (2003) http://www. [26] Kominkiewicz. F, B (2006) Heideggerian existentialism and social work practice with death and survivor bereavement, The Social Science Journal 43 p 47 – 54. Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, USA. [27] Stiegler, B (1994) Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, Stanford University Press.